The hike from Cougar Rock to Carter Falls is a moderate and readily accessible segment of the Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile circuit around the volcano Tahoma, dubbed Mount Rainier by George Vancouver in 1792. Carter Falls was named in the late nineteenth century for Henry Carter, a guide who built the first trail to Paradise Valley. The segment packs stunning mountain vistas, river views, waterfalls, wildflowers, old growth, and edible berries into just 1.3 miles of family-friendly trail.
Drive from Longmire along Paradise Road and park at the Cougar Rock picnic area parking lot. If you are lucky, snag a pull-out parking spot along Paradise Road. Find the pedestrian crossing and a sign that specifies distances to places of interest (Carter Falls, Paradise River Camp, and Narada Falls, among others) and make a left turn to head east on the Wonderland Trail. The trail immediately drops downward and dips to the south into the Nisqually River gorge to cross the log footbridge over the river. As you make the crossing, the first payoff is a view of Tahoma looming over the Nisqually’s gorge.
The trail emerges from the gorge and resumes its eastward course into old growth forest comprised of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and red cedar. Ground cover consists of red huckleberry, blue huckleberry, deer fern, sword fern, vine maple, and Cascade Oregon-grape. This section hosts a variety of wildflowers depending on where and when you hike, including trillium, wood violet, and beargrass (early season) or pearly everlasting and foamflower (late season). Marvel at the old growth and the occasional glacial erratics that are strewn about the landscape. You may be visited by spoiled gray jays preying on the generosity of flocks of hikers.
The trail ascends steadily over the next one mile to Carter Falls then follows the course of the Paradise River, which is an ever-present murmur along the trail. Breaks in the canopy reveal Eagle Peak towering overhead to the south. At 0.7 miles from the trailhead, there is a large erratic sitting in the middle of the stream, and this is a relatively safe spot to descend to the river and dip your toes in the water. The trail becomes somewhat steeper, gaining steadily until it reaches an altitude of 3650 feet over the last half-mile.
At 1.3 miles, Paradise’s murmur grows into a roar, and you have reached Carter Falls, a 53-foot drop of the rushing waters. You have gained 660 feet of total elevation (480 feet net change), over a round-trip hike of 2.6 miles. If you extend the journey to visit Madcap Falls, just upstream of Carter Falls, add an extra 0.2 miles to the round-trip distance.
This hiking guide entry is incomplete without a shout-out to WTA Work Party crews. The Carter Falls section of the Wonderland Trail is exceptionally maintained, thanks to WTA volunteers who have contributed countless hours brushing the trail and removing roots; building culverts, numerous drains, water bars, check steps, and turnpikes; and rebuilding rock wall.
WTA Pro Tips: Before your hike, visit Longmire Museum and Wilderness Information Center. The rangers have information sheets (including maps!) of the trails in the vicinity of Longmire. Check with the rangers to make sure that the log bridge across the Nisqually River affords a safe crossing. If you desire, start from Longmire to make the round-trip hike 7.2 miles. Once you set out, stay on the trail and behind railings, as there are spots where a downhill tumble will cause severe or fatal injury.